Monday, June 12, 2017

The box-office express

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s carbon-copy remake of Psycho a few years ago. Not directly, but in that it’s more interesting as an abstract artistic experiment than as a thing in itself. The concept seems to be simply this: what if a lame but iconic movie was lavishly remade with a superstar cast. “I miss those days,” says Soderbergh, “when you look at a movie like Murder on the Orient Express and there are, like, 12 movie stars. You can’t do it anymore because of the economics.” Of course, Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t such a great movie – it was all about the gimmick, and the very fact of having all those movie stars (at least half of whom, by the way, were well past their heyday, and presumably available relatively cheaply).

Badge of class

Soderbergh nowadays carries inescapable connotations of classiness. He is in that rarified zone where he could get financing to film the phone book. Every time an actor appears in one of his films, it’s established as his or her best performance in years, if not ever. I doubt that anyone thought the new Ocean’s Eleven would constitute the road to an Oscar. But just as a Woody Allen movie used to seem like the ultimate badge of class for an actor, maybe George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and Matt Damon sensed that their stardom would never be more directly vindicated than this; by being one of Soderbergh’s hand-selected bouqyet of stars.

Oh, in interviews they insist it’s all about the script. But you have to see that from their point of view I guess. The script gives each of the actors at least two or three juicy little “bits,” and various opportunities to hang out together. And no one has to get wet or cold. So in that sense the script must have seemed pretty good to all involved. At the end of the movie, most of the cast stands in a row, gazing at the night-time Vegas sights. The music is elegiac, the tone contented and lingering. Everyone’s at ease and proud of himself. This seems to me what the movie is really about.

No one can doubt the actors had a good time. But I doubt whether much of it will infect the audience. Soderbergh executes his project perfectly – he makes a movie with lots of movie stars, and with minimal distraction from them. The heist in Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s one of those movie schemes in which each piece of the plan depends on predicting exactly how someone else will react in a certain situation. For example, Damon’s entry to a particular high-security part of the building depends on knowing that after he carries out an elaborate ruse to get past the guards, big boss Andy Garcia will then leave him alone to go back for the pager he’s conveniently “forgotten.”

Hollow fun

There are probably ten such points at which a slight variation in timing or reaction would cause the plot to fail. Of course, the fun of a heist movie is in watching the seamless flow of events as an aesthetic creation in itself, not in worrying about plausibility. But the downside of Soderbergh’s polished facility is that it shows up the hollowness all the more. As heist movies go, The Score by comparison is a triumph of realism.

And of character development too. Most of the cast no doubt gets what they wanted. Clooney and Pitt, with the two biggest roles, seem exceptionally happy and relaxed. The supporting players are generally zesty. Bernie Mac has a nice race-baiting bit (“Might as well call it whitejack…”), the only edgy moment in the whole film. Damon though seems unaccountably bland in his role, and Roberts’ role just isn’t substantial enough for either presence or good acting to make anything of it. These are just my opinions. Others will see it differently. On this occasion, even more than usual, there’s little prospect of resolving such differences of assessment. The movie’s pristine cliff face contains no fingerholds, no crevices: nothing in which a stray flower of life might flourish. Predictably, it’s a megahit, but will anyone remember it? Maybe twenty years from now as the kind of film that can’t be made any more, because of the economics.

But here’s some news for you – I loved Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, I know that critics familiar with the book are lukewarm about it. Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times, not untypically, said it has a “dreary, literal-minded competence.” Well, I haven’t read the book – I don’t intend to. I didn’t have a clue how the movie was going to unfold. I don’t doubt it’s a safe approach to the project – given the economics, and that choice of director, it would never have been anything else. But I found it remarkably engaging, often enchanting.

Harry new year!

From the beginning, with Richard Harris’ magisterial wizard materializing in a dull British housing estate, the film has a nice balance between the quotidian and the phantasmagoric. The first twenty minutes have Harry’s monstrously hissable foster parents and his indulged cousin; a scene where he talks to a snake at the zoo and helps it escape; and thousands of owls surrounding the house, inevitably evoking Hitchcock yet even at such an early point in the film establishing a grand sense of childlike one-upmanship. The film is immediately captivating, and this is all mere preamble. Harry sets off on his quest, and from then on, without ever feeling to me merely workmanlike, the film sweeps in one revelation after another. And the cast (actually not far off a latter-day equivalent of the cast of Murder on the Orient Express) is delightful.

Certainly I have some reservations. Sometimes the film has too much of that distancing computer-generated look about it – one reason why its more intimate concepts (like the mirror that shows what one’s heart most desires) are often the most enveloping. I think the dramatic impact would have been greater if Harry wasn’t treated like the Son of God from the outset – his triumph is no more than confirmation of the hyped-up expectations that surround him throughout the film. And if the outcome of Quidditch depends on the seeker catching the little ball, what’s the point of all the other players?

I’m sure that readers familiar with the mythology are having a good laugh at my expense here – and that’s fine. Truth is, I held off going to the movie for weeks, unsure I would ever find any way into it. Maybe I was afraid the rest of the audience would spot me as an interloper and hound me out of there. But it turned into a perfectly sublime two and a half hours. I even put it in my top ten films of 2001. Harry New Year!

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